A human link to our past

September 29, 1995|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON -- Bessie Delany became famous at 100. One day in 1991, a reporter came to the house that Bessie shared with her elder sister Sadie in Mount Vernon, New York. ''Go on, sit down,'' Bessie told Amy Hill Hearth. ''Sit down as long as you like. We won't charge you rent.''

The reporter sat and listened. Bessie and Sadie Delany sat and talked. And the country became the richer for it. The sisters' stories about their long life and their good hard times as ''Negro maiden ladies'' were told with such honesty and clarity that Americans also listened. Some 900,000 people read their memoir, ''Having Our Say.'' Thousands more saw the play. Millions came to know them.

Bessie and Sadie Delany forged a human link to our past. Together, these sisters who lived their lives side by side became part of the treasure trove of American stories. Now they are separated. Monday Bessie Delany died. That link to the past seemed a little bit weaker and the present seemed a little bit diminished.

These were women born to a former slave before the Jim Crow laws segregated the South. They were part of the migration of blacks from the South to Harlem to the suburbs. They were part of the upward mobility: Sadie was the first black home-economics teacher in New York, Bessie was the city's second black dentist. They voted the very first time women were allowed, and every time since.

It's barely a lifetime since Bessie was told to choose a profession or a marriage. Barely a lifetime since Bessie was chosen to be class marshal so that none of her white classmates at dental school would have to walk down the graduation aisle beside her. Less than a lifetime since whites refused to go to black dentists and blacks at first refused to go to a woman dentist.

Vinegar and spice

''Dr. Bessie'' as she was known, once described herself and her sister this way, ''If Sadie is molasses, then I am vinegar! Sadie is sugar and I'm the spice.''

It was Bessie who fought harder and took things harder. Bessie who was nearly lynched when she spoke up to a ''rebby'' boy in her Southern youth. Bessie who once said, ''If you ask me the secret to my longevity . . . I'm alive out of sheer determination, honey!''

Indeed, after a century that could beat down the strongest of us, the younger of two sisters who fit together like yin and yang still had the urge ''to change the world.'' Bessie never became feisty or spunky, those words that we use to diminish the emotions of the old. She knew when to be angry and how not to be bitter.

Now we have lost this sister. A human connection has been broken with a past that didn't seem so distant when she talked about it.

''Truth is,'' she said, ''I never thought I'd see the day when people would be interested in hearing what two old Negro women have to say. Life still surprises me.''

Bessie died at 104 the way both sisters wanted it. In her sleep at home, with 106-year-old Sadie by her side. If there is an epitaph, I hope it reads simply: ''Here Lies Bessie Delany. She Was Undaunted.''

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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